Charles Ives and American Democracy

Last night, while our neighborhood exploded with enough ordinance to supply the rebels in Syria for the rest of the year, I closed the windows and turned up the sound on my home theater to listen to Charles Ives’ “Holidays” Symphony, conducted, and spoken about, by Michael Tilson Thomas.  I’m a big fan of the music of Ives, mainly because it both makes me listen carefully, and rewards me for listening carefully.  Most contemporary music, whether pop or concert, requires the first but seldom delivers the second.  Ives delivers.

But, since it was the evening of July 4th, thoughts of Independence Day (not the movie, and not the movement of the Ives symphony by that name) were still littering my mind, as the residue of the day’s fireworks was littering my lawn.  It seems to me, as it has for many years, that Ives is the greatest of all American composers, no matter the medium.  Last night, I stumbled upon another reason to reinforce that estimation.  Some would disagree and point to Gershwin, Ellington, or Jay-Z as deserving that honor, but I don’t agree.  The music of Ives, alone of all those mentioned and many more unmentioned, doesn’t just accompany American democracy, it illustrates it.

The “Decoration Day” second movement of the symphony I listen to is a good example, but you can find it everywhere in his music: the orchestral set “Three Places in New England,” the Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord,” with movements named after four of the famous families of that town, the second and fourth symphonies.  This list is not exhaustive.  Often the music collides, with different keys, different timbres, different rhythms, and Ives never pretties it up for us.  He lets it collide and work out its own destiny in its own way.  It’s messy, noisy, disorienting, and more exhilarating than sex with Ziyi Zhang.  OK, I’ve never had sex with Ziyi Zhang, but my fantasies supply the data that Ms. Zhang herself would not permit.

So what’s this got to do with American democracy?  Everything, you dimwit!  And I’m the dimwit who took 72 years to figure it out.  The diversity that is America, and that we are wise enough to allow to play out publicly, for all to see, comment on, and participate in, is the kind of chaos in search of order that typifies much of Ives’ music.  It’s hard work listening to Ives, since you sometimes wish he would just be Brahms and settle things through a predecided structure.  I think that’s one of the problems with politics today: Brahmsian solutions being proposed for Ivesian problems.  Republicans want a tidy cadence, a simplistic and banal answer that sounds good to them but is irrelevant to the situation.  Tax cuts, spending cuts, eviscerate help to those who are not rich, destroy regulations on business, impose religious morality on laws governing all society.  Kempt solutions for an unkempt world.  And I think many on that side of the ideological spectrum think that’s precisely it.  A disordered world needs, first of all, to be put under control, disciplined, managed.  

But the heady untidiness that is America won’t sit still for such outmoded irrelevancies.  Each new immigrant adds to the cacophony, just as each new instrument Ives introduces adds something else for your ear to cope with.  And so you do, or you shut it off and put on your old Lawrence Welk vinyl, or pirate some L’il Wayne.  They’re both the same, when you realize it.  They offer a formula instead of a challenge, and most of us, most of you, don’t want a challenge, you want to be soothed.  But democracy isn’t soothing, as recent events in Egypt illustrate.  Democracy is the mess; governing is loving the mess, respecting those in the mess, and always remembering that the compass points toward general directions, and that’s the job of governing, too. 

Charles Ives finds ways to do all of this in his music, but to do that he had to be willing to embrace ambiguity and see it as a fact of musical life.  American democracy is ambiguous because the players are always changing, clashing, each trying to shout louder than the other.  The job of governing is not to be a part of the shouting, nor to marginalize the shouters who piss you off.  Sometimes, in an Ives symphony, you just wish half the orchestra would pipe the fuck down so you could hear the lovely, soothing violins.  But the music of Ives is not like that and the democracy that is America is not like that.  We have to work it out together, as one crazy chaotic orchestra, letting everyone play the tune he or she must, or we end up with Brahms, or Burma, or Boyz2Men.


2 thoughts on “Charles Ives and American Democracy

  1. Barbara Collins says:

    You have always had such an insightful way of listening to music. I think you use more of your brain and your body of knowledge than most of us are able to do. This is a very interesting essay. I am looking forward to your busy next life. Barb

  2. Now Barbara Collins is the kind of friend to whom you should give gifts. As for me, I consider you a great bull shitter . . . & that’s what I like about you. Your bull shit is a flavor similar to my own (tasty image?), even though I don’t understand yours. The messiness of democracy compared to Charles Ives? Okay, that’s fun to contemplate. But I’m just a struggling Philistine & get stretched with such thoughts. And yes, stretching is fun. By the way, Dennis, I’ve been listening to Ives’ complete piano sonata No. 2 most of the morning & I’m grateful to you for inspiring me to the task. Lots of stretching there just in the sitting still & listening.

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